At Sea With Jeanie
At Sea With Jeanie
as reported by
Dennis J. Ahern
The Boston Irish Reporter
September 2003
For four days, West Acton resident Dennis J. Ahern sailed the Atlantic with the Jeanie Johnston, the replica of a ship that carried Irish emigrants to America in the 19th century. Ahern, 59, hauled in sails, manned the helm, and took notes.

At the dock in Portsmouth, N.H.
Jeanie at the dock in Portsmouth, N.H.

Unfurling the Main Topsail
Trainees and crew unfurl the main topsail.

How to peel a spud
Bosun Tom Harding from Cork shows trainee Adrian Link how to peel a spud.

Showing the course to St. Andrews
Skipper Rob Mathews shows the course to St. Andrews to trainees Pat Sarantis and Brian MacNamara.

Bracing the mizzen yardarms
Trainees Brian MacNamara, John F. Lyons, Mary Ferguson and Nicole Ciandella brace the mizzen yardarms to starboard while engineer Steve Gallagher watches from the stern.

Cleaning Stations
Trainee Brian MacNamara on cleaning station in the foreward head. The knotted rope helps in climbing the steep ladder to the berthing area above.

pennywhistling on the main
Brian MacNamara from New York playing pennywhistle in the mainmast rigging.

lollygagging on the bowsprit
Bosun Tom Harding and trainee Brian MacNamara lollygagging on the bowsprit.

In the foremast rigging
The author climbing the foremast rigging.

at the wheel
The author takes a turn at the wheel, the first time he'd had the helm of a vessel that wasn't steered by a tiller.

The Jeanie Johnston had come to Boston. Finally, after years of construction delays and appeals for funding, the famine ship replica had followed its namesake across the Atlantic. A three-masted barque with square-rigged sails, the original had been built in Quebec in 1847 to carry timber to Ireland. On the return voyage, 6-by-6-foot berths were built in the cargo hold to carry upwards of 250 passengers. In the 1840s there were no engines, so a sailing vessel could take six to eight weeks crossing the Atlantic.

Completed in 2002 in Blennerville, County Kerry, the replica Jeanie left Ireland on her first transatlantic voyage on February 19, 2003, headed for Florida. Since her arrival on our shores in April, she had been working her way up the coast, stopping over in ports such as Savannah, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Providence. At last she was in Boston, and on a fine day a group of us from the Irish Ancestral Research Association (T.I.A.R.A.) met for lunch at the Black Rose and then went down to the pier for a look-see.

With a length of 123' overall, she was not as big as I had imagined, smaller than Old Ironsides, but bigger than the Mayflower. The main passenger accommodation down below was rigged out as a museum exhibit with mannequins in various aspects of shipboard life and a sound track of spectral voices bemoaning their situation. Four adults could occupy each berth, sleeping head-to-toe, as was shown by costumed dummies with their bare feet sticking out into the passage. The modern Jeanie follows a similar routine between ports, breaking down the berths and replacing the dummies with sail-training crew willing to pay for the privilege of standing four-hour watches at sea and sleeping in a narrow bunk.

Because it was designed as a sail training vessel, the new Jeanie Johnston was built with all the modern safety and technological conveniences. Where the emigrant passengers made do with slop buckets emptied once a day at best, there were now vacuum flush toilets and a biological sewage treatment plant. Where fresh water was rationed for drinking and cooking, the new Jeanie can carry 12 tons of water plus a desalinization plant — enough for hot showers every day. All of this was of more than passing interest to me, for I had already applied to join the ship as a sail trainee and was due to join her in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for a four-day cruise to St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

Reporting on board at noon, I was one of 21 sail trainees, ranging in age from the 16-year old scholarship students to Captain Jack Smith who first went to sea in schooners out of Newfoundland in 1932. He had spent his life in the fisheries and merchant marine, for several years ferrying supplies to the Dew Line radar stations on the rim of the Arctic. The five teens had been presented scholarships by the Piscataqua Maritime Commission, the hosts of the Jeanie's Portsmouth visit, after winning an essay contest. We were divided up into three watches, named for each of the three masts, which also designated where we would muster when going on or off watch or in an emergency. The skipper, Rob Matthews, 46, from Bristol, England, introduced the members of the crew, and we spent the afternoon being instructed in various drills and simple seamanship. The most challenging lesson was climbing the foremast, going up the ratlines to the first platform and down the other side.

It was late in the day before the pilot came on board to guide us out of the harbor, motoring below the raised drawbridges and past the scattered crowds waving from shore. As darkness fell, so did the rain. Those of us not on watch went below to unpack our gear and spread our bedding in the two-bunk berths. My bunkmate, John F. Lyons from Nashua, New Hampshire, was the same age as me (59), and had brought his three grown sons, Mark (32), Bryan (33), John J. (35) and his brother, Bill (61) from New Jersey. Being on the 12 to 4 watch, I turned in to get some sleep. Four days of midnight to four and noon to four on top of cleaning stations and training classes every day would take their toll if I did not take a nap whenever possible.

There was rain with lightning and thunder when the lights of Portsmouth were left behind, but when we came on watch at midnight, it was mostly fog, which collected on the rigging and dripped on us from above. Each watch was led by a member of the permanent crew. Our watch captain was Adrian Nugent from Clonakilty in county Cork. We posted two people as bow watch, one on starboard and one on port, two lookouts amidships, and one lookout aft leaving one person on the helm and two on standby. Also standing our watch was Charlie Nash from Cobh, Co. Cork. Back home in Cobh, Charlie works as a harbor pilot and came over for three weeks to handle navigation duties, while the captain, Tom McCarthy, flew home for a break.

Every half hour we switched off, so that everyone got a chance at the helm. It was not easy holding a ship this size on course, even though there was a digital display to watch in addition to the traditional compass in its brass and glass binnacle. The toughest duty, however, was the bow watch. Because of the fog, we had to listen for other vessels or the bells and whistles of navigational buoys, and we were not allowed to talk. This also meant I couldn't play my pennywhistle while on watch.

We had two of the scholarship kids on our watch. One of them, John O'Sullivan from York, Maine, spent most of the first night at the rail, “feeding the fishes.” The other, Tyler King from Alton Bay, New Hampshire, had spent a lot of time sailing on his grandfather's gaff-rigged schooner and had quickly found his sea legs. The galley, always open, provided mugs of tea and leftover sandwiches on breaks. We helped ourselves to mugs of tea and rummaged in the cooler for leftover sandwiches.

Coming off watch at 4 a.m. I headed for a hot shower, then to bed until breakfast call at 0700 hours. With the gentle rolling swells it was like sleeping on a waterbed that an energetic toddler is using for a trampoline. Before I knew it, it was time for breakfast.

From Queensland, Australia, Louise “Lou” Richards (35), the cook, worked magic in the tiny galley and every meal was bountiful and varied. Breakfasts included scrambled eggs and bacon, home fries, fresh fruit, yogurt, hot and cold cereals, lovely thin pancakes with lashings of maple syrup, toast, juice, coffee, and pots and pots of tea. Lunches ranged from hot dogs and tunafish sandwiches, salads and pasta, to boiled lobsters bought off a passing boat. The dinners were amazing, from fried fish filets to roast lamb with roasted potatoes and gravy to spaghetti bolognaise with garlic bread. Desserts were a treat, peach pies and apple cobblers, always with leftovers for the night watch in the galley fridge.

For the first couple of days we motored steadily eastward, heading far out into the Gulf of Maine, so that if we did get enough wind to set the sails, we would have plenty of sea room to maneuver. In the meantime we trained each day on handling the sheets and halyards, bracing the yardarms to port or starboard on command. Most of the trainees had become confident enough to climb all the way up to the topgallant yardarms, the highest point on the ship. To furl or unfurl the sails they would clip their safety harnesses to the yardarm and work their way outboard stepping on the footropes. It was an impressive sight, viewed from the security of the deck far below.

Every morning after breakfast all hands turned-to at cleaning stations which were rotated through each watch. The forward head, down below, was the toughest job, not because there were four toilets, four sinks, and two showers to scrub down and disinfect, but because of the heat and close air. It made me wish I had windshield wipers on my eyelids. There was also one person per watch assigned to galley duty for each meal, to set out cutlery and condiments and to wash dishes, pots and pans afterwards. I didn't think the latter job would require instruction, but some people must be used to dishwashers at home because they sometimes forgot to rinse the soap off before drying the dishes.

It was not all work and no play, however. One day with a dead flat calm, the launch was put in the water alongside for a lifeguard station and people donned swim suits for a dip. Most dived from the rail with varying degrees of skill. Some climbed the ratlines and swung out on a line from the end of the yardarm. Despite claims of bathtub temperatures, most of us were content to watch as a futile attempt was made at synchronized swimming. Back on deck, one of the trainees, Alan Deal, from Charlotte, North Carolina, had lost the drawstring from his trunks. This was too tempting for Mani (Emmanuel) Sherwin, a 22-year old crewmember from Dublin, who began to chase him around the deck trying to de-pants him, only to be hoist on his own petard when the front of his own trunks were torn away in the scuffle.

With the lifting of the fog, I was able to get out my pennywhistle and play some tunes. Brian MacNamara, a trainee from my watch, borrowed my extra D whistle, and young Tyler broke out his concertina. Originally from New Ross in County Wexford, Brian first came to the States as a teenager 17 years ago and is now an American citizen and a New York City fireman. Another trainee, Andy Tolen, a mailman from Philadelphia got his pennywhistle as well, and we had some good sessiuns.

Being out of sight of land day after day is a different sort of sailing from what I'm used to. Once in a while there would be a fishing boat in the distance, or a school of dolphins going by. One night when clouds filtered most of the moon and the sea looked like someone was making up a bed with black satin sheets, a whale surfaced close alongside, blew once, and was gone. One clear night we saw the lights of a small town astern where there could be no land. The lights grew brighter and higher above the horizon, until we realized it was the Scotia Prince ferry on its way from Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The next day we saw the twin-hulled “Cat” ferry throwing up a plume astern from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, Maine, and back again.

And we had stowaways. Small birds blown offshore with no other place to land would hitch a ride, one day a swallow, another day two yellow warblers, and once a nuthatch. They would stay with us for a day and then head for shore. After four days at sea, we did the same. Approaching the Bay of Fundy in the mid-watch we could see the lighthouse on Grand Manaan Island off to starboard and Campobello off to port. Friday morning it was all hands to cleaning stations first thing, then a late breakfast and below to pack our gear.

The St. Andrews committee did themselves proud rolling out the welcome mat, with a fleet of small boats come out to escort us in. There was a schooner came alongside with a fiddler on deck, so we broke out our pennywhistles to join in some tunes. More fiddlers were on the dock as we came alongside. The large crowd waited patiently while we came alongside and tied the Jeanie once more to the land. For some of us, the trip was over, but it will not soon be forgot.

Ahern, who once sailed the coast of Maine in a 12-foot sloop, was almost lost at sea at the age of 7, found two miles off the coast of Rockport, Mass. “I've been trying to go to sea ever since,” he says. You can follow the progress of the Jeanie Johnston and learn more about her at